Alma Thomas, Abstract Pioneer

Alma Thomas was born in the state of Georgia in the United States in 1892. At school she was a model student who shone in many subjects. The family later settled in Washington D.C in order for the gifted young Alma to live in a region which created more educational opportunities for African American youngsters.

The Eclipse, 1970

After leaving school, the future artist went into teaching and this was an area which she would stay close to her heart for the rest of her life. Given the chance to attend Howard University, a historically black centre of learning, it was here Thomas met influential tutor and artist Loïs Mailou Jones. Urged to study art and experiment in painting, Thomas began an early exploration of the area of abstraction. After graduation with a degree in the subject, Thomas went back to teaching.

Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968

It was not until her retirement in 1960 that Thomas became a full-time artist. Inspired by the abstract expressionism and colour-field painters of the age, she began to direct her work in a similar area. Exhibiting her work in 1966 at Howard University, she began to develop the brightly coloured mosaic style for which she became famous. Taking inspiration from the moon landings at the end of the decade, her abstract style continued. It was nature however which motivated Thomas to paint many of her works. Remembering the rural landscape of her home state, she captured impressions of the seasons, flowers and the elements among other aspects of the natural world in her following work. Her resulting paintings received much praise from critics.

Springtime in Washington, 1971

It was aged 81 that Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The artist continued to work and exhibit her work for the following seven years until her death in 1978. While not overtly political in an age of civil rights activism, Alma Thomas, nevertheless made huge inroads for African American artists into an art world run by the exclusively white and male art establishment.

Eunice Golden & The Erotic Male Nude

A painter of Russian American heritage, Eunice Golden has become synonymous with work on the male nude in a feminist exploration of sexuality and heterosexual/bisexual female desire. In doing so her work broke many boundaries. The artist was part of was a part of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee in 1970 and joined the Fight Censorship group, a collective who aimed to challenge laws on what couldn’t be depicted in art during the 1970s. Also involved were artists such as Louise Bourgeois, who was likewise known to create explicit depictions of nudes in her work.

Golden, in turn, sought to define ideas of desire from a female perspective in a world where female bodies had been constantly created and posed for the male gaze. The female nude had become an age old object of fetish onto which male artists and male viewers alike could project their every whim and fantasy. The artist’s work sought to challenge and subvert masculinised ideologies by providing a female voyeuristic viewpoint. In doing so her work was considered quite radically feminist during the era, by reversing gendered power relations and notions about the artist and their muse.

Cronus #1” by Eunice Golden.

Part of a generation of artists who sought to express aspects of sexuality, along with Carolee Schneemann, Nancy Spero and Louise Bourgeois, from a female perspective, Golden has secured a place in feminist art history in a prolific career, spanning fifty years. Her progressive and challenging ideas have also helped to raise the visibility of female artists generally, while her explorations of sexuality have pushed the boundaries, specifically for female expression.  

Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689), a painter from the Southern Netherlands, is thought to be the first female artist to depict a male nude. She perhaps ‘got away with it’ because most presumed her paintings were created by a male artist anyway. U.S. artist Sylvia Sleigh, another painter who worked with Golden in the 70s setting up initiatives for women in the arts, is also well known for her depictions of male nudes. Sleigh famously created a male ‘Harem’ artwork, utilising white men instead of the Orientalist female stereotypes created by European male painters during the 19th century. Turning both the tables and power dynamics, in turn, has quite amusing results.

Sylvia Sleight, The Turkish Bath, 1973.
Eunice Golden, Study for Gardens of Delight #1, 1980, mixed media on paper, 18×24″

Eunice Golden (born 1927) is now 93 years old. Her practice expanded over the years to encompass performances in which she arranged and covered a real male body with food. Her later work focused on other subjects, such as mothers. However, it is perhaps her painted Male Landscapes series which began in the 1970s which is best known and received the most notoriety as well as praise.

Golden’s figurative depictions of the erotic male nude are indeed powerful expressions of the female gaze, and a pioneering exploration by a great artist.

Eunice Golden’s work is part of a current exhibition Eunice Golden: Metamorphosis at SAPAR Contemporary [Oct. 22 – Nov. 28] New York.